Jon Goodbun’s PhD viva interview, 2nd August 2011
Department of Architecture, University of Westminster
Notes by Murray Fraser
Present: Jonathan Hale (JH), Jeremy Till (JT), Jon Goodbun (JG), Marion Roberts, Murray Fraser
JH: Would you like to begin by saying something generally about your thesis subject and how it all started?
JG: I was concerned with how to think about environmental questions, in their broadest sense, in relation to architecture. But it has been a complex journey depending on different stages of my career and the issues I have been thinking about (e.g. digital architecture/aesthetic theory/tools and prosthesis/ecology/etc.). The importance of ecology for instance has only truly become apparent to me over the last few years. I came to realise that all these questions are inseparable and can be thought about together by looking at architectural space and architectural technology. This mixture of ideas can then be used in turn to illuminate the internals relations thinking within Marxism and also to update cybernetic theory. For me the key figure in all this is Gregory Bateson.
JH: You mention that your thesis began as a PhD by Design and that in some ways you think it still is. Can you explain this more?
JG: My thesis needs to be seen as design research because it mixes moments of critical theory, architectural history and scientific analysis in a broad-based interdisciplinary manner. And the way in which such different types of knowledge have been deliberately and laterally combined — just like architects do in their work — has to be seen as a design research model. I don’t mean that it is about producing designs as such, but I am talking about the general intellectual approach. Capitalism is obviously a non-disciplinary phenomenon, and so the design research approach offered me a way to grasp together distinct kinds of knowledge.
JT: Are you saying that it is analogous to design research, or is it actually design research in itself?
JG: I would say that it is actual design research.
JH: But did your research begin more explicitly as a process in which you intended to produce design projects?
JG: Yes, that’s true — my thesis was always framed in an open way to collect together many things, and in order to allow its path to develop according to what I discovered.
JT: I agree that parts of your thesis are based on design research, but this is not applied consistently in every chapter. Could you not have more explicitly used the design research method in, for instance, your chapter on nature?
JG: I agree that some chapters are less based on the design research method, but I see the latter as working its effect across the thesis as a whole, not in every chapter/section.
JT: However, this means it is harder for the reader to follow. If you take the 6-stage analysis of Marxist thinking given on p.29, could you not have used that as a structure, or something similar? Don’t you need a clearer ‘road map’ of what the research methods are across the thesis in order to meet the requirements for a PhD?
JG: Yes, I could have done that, but I decided early on that I didn’t want to follow just one linear research method due to the complexity of the subject matter.
JT: OK, but what then is your actual research question? That is essential for a PhD, surely.
JG: I see my research question as having two aspects: What does it mean to think about architecture within a set of different disciplines? And how can we then establish a framework of terms which arise out of those disciplines that can be used to illuminate architecture?
JH: What is the relationship between Part 1 and Part 2 in your thesis? How important is that division? And does it not work against your intentions by appearing to categorise things in binary terms?
JG: I must confess that the very first page of the thesis, which clusters the list of chapters into those two parts, was only added hurriedly on the morning of printing! There had previously been a hint in my conclusion that there might be seen as two parts to the thesis, but it wasn’t really worked out properly. On reflection, I probably shouldn’t have included that Part 1/Part 2 on the first page.
JT: Could it perhaps be read as meaning that Part 1 is based on more grounded knowledge whereas Part 2 is more speculative? In any case, I would have liked to see more sections in the thesis that related your argument back to typical architectural approaches. Your structure could have been far more synthetic in always returning to your stated research question of what all of this means for architecture.
JG: Yes, I would agree with that.
JH: What you have produced is in effect a sort of Deleuzian-style marshalling of a ‘constellation’ of analytical tools which haven’t been brought together in this way by other writers before. My sense is that there is not a Part 1 or a Part 2, and indeed the different sections could have been organised in a different order and it wouldn’t really matter. The problem with that approach, however, is that there tends to be a lot of repetition of points and cross-referencing to other chapters.
JG: But that was deliberate — I introduced the cross-referencing to link the material together as it was so complex and interconnected.
JH: This however means that the thesis has become perhaps too long? It also means that certain other aspects maybe have been squeezed out. Jeremy has mentioned the relative lack of architectural analysis; I would like to point out the missing aspect of the human body.
JT: To follow that point up, i.e. in terms of the thesis length, could you not have taken out Chapter 6 and the whole thing still wouldn’t collapse?
JG: Perhaps that chapter might have been omitted, but I do feel that its content is necessary for my overall argument. In terms of your point, Jonathan, I wanted very much to take bodily relationships in hand and show the relation to the human brain and neuroscience. I aimed to give a different reading of the relations between body/space/technology than is found in the usual texts on the body in architecture. I also felt there were key innovations in cognitive science which are helpful in thinking about space/architecture, and so Chapter 6 is there to build a bigger picture of analysis.
JH: But that only highlights a missing middle-ground around the human body in your thesis, as otherwise the reader has to make a major leap between the stuff about the brain and the stuff about the ecosystem. Perhaps bodily practices could have been brought into your analysis, such as by looking more at Merleau-Ponty? I just feel the subject of the ‘body schema’ has been omitted.
JG: My view was that there has been a lot of work done in that subject area, so I just wanted to let it stand. Also, my chapter on empathy does include a lot about the body, human perception, etc.
JH: But your explanation about empathy is still too much about the brain! My view is that even the subject of empathy can be explained a lot more through bodily studies .It’s worth thinking about.
JT: For me the big question around your subject is that of intentionality. In other words, do such theories always lead to a certain inevitability about our aesthetic understanding/experience? The danger of cybernetics, surely, is that it turns us into passive subjects. So I want to ask where or what is the difference between human agency and precious subjectivity?
JG: Yes, that is a major issue which animates my thesis. Bateson was indeed a co-founder of cybernetics and systems research, but his intellectual project was always about showing the dangers of such thinking in its tendency towards conceiving closed systems. He, plus a few others, wanted to show that human systems are always open and can never be fully controlled; thus they can be directly affected by human agency. My thesis also argues that too much systems theory has been incorporated into thinking and policies that are closed systems, and hence are too technocratic. Instead, following Bateson, my aim was to formulate ways of thinking that reinforce the open systems method. This, when coupled with Marxism and political ecology, gives my project a radical edge as well as a clear purpose and sense of agency.
JT: That’s a very good answer, but how then does your thesis link it back to the analysis of the human mind and aspects such as ecology? How can one possibly look at empathy in terms of the radical systems approach that you advocate?
JG: I share your concerns. A major problem is the reductive nature of the language that we have available to ask these questions. Both the terms ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are insufficient, yet they are the necessary terms to use because they are the words that we have. However, we can also start to question them. In fact, this was what Marx and Engels were doing; for instance, they declared that they were materialists while at the same time they questioned the existing meaning of ‘materialism’, since they could see its weaknesses. In my thesis I therefore looked at Bateson, Bohm and others to see how they had attempted to get over these conceptual problems. And what I am arguing is that architectural knowledge can contribute to our understanding of terms like ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, and the problematic distinctions we try to make between them, because architecture enacts the division of labour between ideas and buildings in its very practices. We can also realise that our complex understanding of architecture is very much based on the physical and spatial embodiments of the problematic mind/matter dualism that we have inherited.
JT: But are you not selling yourself short by saying that? On p.335 you offer a quote about the act of design being something which ‘reveals’ an understanding of the world, but is that really enough of a purpose for architecture? What about the act of creation or changing the world?
JG: I was quoting Pickering at that point, and what you ask for is in fact what he was talking about — i.e. that humans need to be active and creative in the world to survive. So he was using the term ‘revealing’ in a wider, active, creative sense, and not just about mere passive understanding. And I also meant it as an affirming embrace of the act of design that is not about closing down things. Systems in the end are always reductive, even in architecture, and so far more interesting is the continual need to open them up again.
JH: Once you talk about agency as a distributed system, then what is the role of the individual designer? Where is free will in all of this? Does what you argue take away the scope of the individual person — in this case the architect –to be creative?
JG: I agree that the problem of the role (or indeed existence) of the individual designer becomes a problem in the systems theory approach, but I would argue that this in fact helps to open up the issue of creativity and how it can be enacted.
JH: How does this impact on what it means for the individual agent/architect to act in the world? Might your thesis have talked more explicitly about our notions of self?
JG: Again I agree with you, and that is why I tried to keep away from the fuzzier and more generalised versions of open systems, which tend to omit the role of individuals.
JH: In terms of tracing the history of systems theory in architecture, is your use of Alberti as the first one — due to his uses of ‘part’ and ‘whole’ — really supporting the idea of open systems? Does not their very openness and fluidity refute any notion of a whole? Also, if you are following that particular historical trajectory back in time, could you not have gone even further to interpret Vitruvius, or even certain pre-Socratic thinkers, as the original systems theorists on subjects like architecture?
JG: I agree that Alberti is not perhaps a major example, and that one could possibly trace these ideas to earlier writers. However, it was just that when reading Alberti I was especially struck by how much he had thought in proto-systems theory terms, and how he had used this approach to link buildings to aesthetics and cities and the cosmos. As to the relationship between ‘part’ and ‘whole’, I regard it as the first systems problem in philosophy!
JH: Elsewhere in the thesis you say that you see Maturana and Varela as providing a ‘labour theory’ of living matter and human cognition. Can you explain this a bit more?
JG: If you are trying, as I am here, to update Marxism, ecological thinking and cybernetics, one comes to realise that they are all trying to think about how people live and sustain themselves. They all end up with a similar model which holds that, within a system, any actor that is able to recognise the need to act is a link between life and mind. In other words, the act of impacting on one’s environment in order to produce oneself — and this doesn’t matter what species one is — is akin to Marxist labour theory. So one arrives at a labour definition whenever one tries to define or describe metabolism. I think it’s an important point, but I don’t think anyone has written it before me!
JT: Yes, it seems to me that the passage on p.58 is the real change in the thesis. That is where you say that autopoesis is not just a closed process, but that it is always framed in terms of its relation to external systems. Hence it is always essentially dialectical. Is that too an original insight?
JG: I think so, and what I am arguing here is that autopoesis is not just a closed loop of self-generation as it is so often written about. Any process of self-generation can only occur if matter and energy are present, and produces itself in contact with them; therefore all production only exists in relation to external forces. Therefore one can say that in some ways that architecture is a closed loop, but that condition is only sustained as a result of production by, and interaction with, a whole host of external matters such as economics, ecology, etc.
JT: In that case, how does what you say relate to the current theory of autopoesis being promoted by someone like Patrik Schumacher?
JG: As far as I understand it, Schumacher’s work is heavily derived from Luhmann, who is a third-generation neo-cybernetician interested in social sciences, and who in turn took much of his analysis from Maturana and Varela and also Stafford Beer. What Schumacher writes is of interest as he is someone who happens to be returning to neo-cybernetic analysis to ask questions such as what is the nature of architectural knowledge, and what constitutes the architectural profession? However the real disappointment in his book is that ‘parametricism’ is somehow the answer to all of these questions! I therefore don’t think that Schumacher gets us anywhere.
JH: I was struck by the diagram that you reproduced on p.57 which has a chair that is seemingly expressing feelings or emotions. Does a chair have agency?
JG: In my thesis I use a really good quote from Latour about how the objects around us should be seen as a continuum of agency, and in this sense every object can offer affordances.
JH: I think that’s important, but could you not have written more about agency and affordances, especially in relation to the idea of bodily presence put forward by Merleau-Ponty, Gibson, etc? In other words, humans have a bodily grasp of the world before we even start to think about it in intellectual terms. Such a view would help to link your ideas more to architecture.
JG: I certainly tried to do this when I was writing about the idea of affordance as being part of our relationship to the surrounding world.
JH: Yes, but are not the detailed kinds of affordance that you talk about in your thesis — i.e. surface pattern and texture — too much of a side-step when dealing with this aspect? Surely there is a more basic and broader, and thus more important, reading that can be made of affordances in architecture, especially in their influence on how people relate to and understand architecture?
JG: I did have some material on that point in relation to Van Eyck’s Amsterdam playgrounds, but I took it out. I probably should have kept it in, given that what you say is correct.
JH: If I can pick up on another point, was Bateson not too influenced by the idea of information flows — in cybernetic terms, of how information had ‘lost its body’ — and as a consequence he undervalued physical, lived, bodily reality?
JG: Yes, but that in a sense what all the cyberneticians were trying to do in focussing on information streams as the expression of language differences in their dispersed modern state.
JH: Is there not a real danger in splitting off the mental concepts in language from the body, even if one also acknowledges that language at an early stage of human development came out of bodily practices? Surely we still need, even today, a much tighter embodiment of language as a social practice in which bodily practice is equally vital. For me, this is the point where cybernetics falters.
JG: I agree that we need to put the body back into our thinking, especially in light of the impact of prosthetics and other forms of extension. Interestingly, this kind of integration seems to be returning into the latest theories and designs in robotics, which hitherto had tended to be very mechanical in conception.
JH: The issue is how to avoid becoming trapped in the kinds of binaries that language presents us with, such as the matter/pattern division that you criticise. Can one not look at the information systems that create pattern while always keeping in mind the actual ‘stuff’ of matter? In other words, embodiment always encompasses information, and hence practices of information flow — even in our digitally enhanced age — inherently have a bodily construction and a form of bodily participation. I guess what I am suggesting is that there is a danger in an over-emphasis on language!
JG: I totally agree, and in my thesis I was trying to state the dialectical process of recognising the separation of ‘part’ but always returning to the ‘whole’, which would include bodily practices.
JH: I think your thesis should definitely become a book, but in that instance I would suggest that you mention more about the bodily schema and associated social practices. You could for example take Bourdieu in the way that he extended Merleau-Ponty to include the analysis of economics, social systems, etc. This would also help to get your thesis away from the science laboratory set-up that is perhaps too strong in some chapters. I also think you should link the insights from neurology far more closely to your ecological readings.
JT: A final point I would make is that you should stress more that what you are saying offers a chance to deal with, and impact on, systems in the world if indeed the political control over us is really as intractable as writers like Harvey and Swyngedouw claim. These urban pessimists seem to be saying that there can only ever be change if there is full-scale social revolution! Does not your more integrated reading offer us more hope for action?
JG: I admire Harvey’s co-evolutionary strategy as it complexifies the idea of struggle/resistance, and thus gives us a sense that at any moment one can act and labour in such a way that contributes to potentially disruptive changes in capitalism. Hence left-wing thinking needs the sort of intellectual work that I have carried out in my thesis, as otherwise it can be accused of not having progressed much in recent decades. Fundamental epistemological work needs to be done even before we start to think about politics, which is what Bateson said. I would like to take this strategy but also make the political critique far more explicit.
JT: We need to take seriously the links between the political and the ecological, and indeed one can argue that it is the latter aspect which tends to be downplayed in the work of Swyngedouw and others in the field of urban political ecology. In other words, they have too much of the politics and not enough of the ecology!
JG: Again, I couldn’t agree more.
JH/JT: We think that this is an excellent, indeed amazingly original, piece of work and so it is clearly a pass. It should definitely be developed into a book; bearing that in mind, we decided against asking you to add in more text about the methodology of your thesis, since that is precisely what would then be taken out by the publisher when it becomes a book! However, there are (as ever) some minor typos which we will notify you of and which need to be corrected quickly before the thesis is bound and put into the library.